Winter’s Continuing Impact on Agriculture
Spring is off to a slow start in Ithaca, and with it comes a slow start to the upcoming agricultural season. However, this winter has been colder and snowier than usual. The National Weather Service office in Binghamton reported that the average temperature this winter has been three degrees colder than the overall average, and the area received 17 more inches of snow. As such, the harsher conditions have impacted winter agriculture such as the maple season and winter community shared agriculture (CSA) programs in the area.
A handful of local farms that serve the Ithaca area offer winter CSAs, which grow root vegetables and hardy greens in greenhouses during the colder months. These buildings use layers of plastic to trap the heat from sunlight to allow the plants to grow, but the more extreme temperatures seen this winter have stopped any growth. Robin Ostfeld, owner of Blue Heron Farm in Lodi, N.Y., said the farm was unable to provide vegetables like kale and bok choi for the CSA members because the ground frequently froze overnight.
“We usually have greens for our winter CSA members at least twice a month, but this year we had to skip most of January and all of February,” Ostfeld said.
Heating the rooms where the winter squash, onions and garlic were kept was much more expensive this year due to the cold and rising price of propane, and water was also an issue because the farm uses an outdoor source that froze frequently.
Though also off to a slow start, the local maple season looks to be in better shape, according to Dan Beasley, owner of SweeTrees Maple Products in Berkshire. This is SweeTrees’ thirteenth season, so as a relative newcomer to the maple business, Beasley elected to tap his trees with new technology that uses check valves instead of just a tube. With the traditional bucket method, sap would go back through the tap and seal the hole, but the check valves prevent this from happening. Without the hole sealing up, syrup can be made earlier in the case of a thaw, thus lengthening the season.
“If you utilize the technology, in some cases you may end up with a longer season because you start a lot earlier,” Beasley said. “We started tapping the first week in February, which traditionally would be way too early to tap, and our first sap we boiled was February 22.”
Beasley explained that maple season is very dependent on weather, both in terms of precipitation and temperature. Unlike winter vegetables, abundant snowfall assists the maple season by providing insulation and water for the trees, which then allows them to produce more sap. If a winter thaw occurs too quickly, the growth of new buds will change the flavor of the syrup, if not cut the season short.
“It was either two or three years ago that it got warm so quick that our season for making syrup only lasted 11 days,” Beasley said. “As long as the weather doesn’t get too hot too fast, we can still have a fantastic season.”
Under the ideal conditions, with daytime temperatures in the 40s and nighttime temperatures in the 20s, the season lasts much longer than that. Beasley said a fellow syrup maker once extended the maple season until April 22.
Despite the relative success of maple season, it’s still too early to fully tell how this winter will affect summer production. However, climatologists predict that the polar vortex responsible for the harsh winter might create a late frost that could hurt spring planting across the country. In a session at the Georgia Organics Conference in February, University of Georgia climatologist Pam Knox said the chance of a late frost is greater this year, and farmers and gardeners who plant early are more at risk.
“The chance of a late frost is more likely this year, so hold back a bit,” she said. “If not, you may lose that first crop and have to go back and replant everything.”
This is especially true for peach and other fruit crops in Georgia. Trees are already flowering in the South, and a late frost could knock out the fruit season, not only there but nationally.
Two years ago a Friday in late April was 80 degrees and sunny, and the following Monday saw four inches of snow. Cornell Cooperative Extension reported that this late frost was five consecutive nights of nighttime temperatures in the 20s. Like in the South, fruit crops are the most susceptible: the loss of primary grapevine buds to frost will reduce grape production by 40 percent, and some farms in western New York have already reported losses of up to 90 percent.
Nevertheless, things are looking up. Ostfeld was able to bring fresh arugula to the Ithaca Farmers Market inside GreenStar on March 22, and Beasley hosted open houses the last two weekends of March.
“Mother Nature’s in charge,” Beasley said. “We just try to do our best with what she gives us.”
Amanda Hutchinson is a junior journalism major who gladly trade snowflakes for syrup. Email her at ahutchi2[at]ithaca.edu.